|October 29, 2001||GET BUZZFLASH ALERTS||NEWS ANALYSIS ARCHIVES|
Was Flight 93 Shot Down Over Pennsylvania? If So, Was It Because The Hijackers Were Targeting Three Mile Island?
BuzzFlash has followed the events surrounding Flight 93, the United Airlines 757 that crashed in Pennsylvania, since the September 11 attacks and a number of theories have emerged over how and why that hijacked plane went down in a wooded area near Stony Creek Township, in south central Pennsylvania.
However, we hesitated to post speculation until now. Recent news sources have reconfirmed the possibility that the hijackers of Flight 93 intended to ram the plane into the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, a mere 15 minutes from the crash site, and that instead of plummeting into the ground on its own, Flight 93 was actually shot out of the air by U.S. fighter jets.
As the Sunday Times of London reported on October 21, 2001: "[Flight 93] then made a series of sharp turns before going into a steep descent. Aviation experts say that at this point there were three nuclear power stations between the plane and Washington and directly in its line of flight: Three Mile Island, Peach Bottom and Hope Creek."
"Investigators cannot understand why the plane would have descended so early, unless its intended target was much nearer than Washington. The descent could have been an error by one of the hijackers, but if so, they cannot understand why the plane did not then climb again once control was regained."
In a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, journalist Harley Sorensen postulated that the reason the public has seen so little of Vice President Cheney since September 11 is that he may have issued the order that prompted fighter jets to shoot down Flight 93.
Sorensen argues that "friendly fire" could be why the government is keeping the flight recorders out of public scrutiny or why the names of fighter pilots, seen in the area of Flight 93 before it crashed, have not been released. Lending credibility to Sorensen's claim was a Cheney busy with crisis presidential duties while Bush was in an elementary schoolroom, even after Andrew Card told him of the first attack. Additionally, during Cheney's first post-September 11th appearance -- a September 16th interview with Tim Russert -- he spoke of the procedures used to protect Washington and the decision made "hypothetically" to shoot down rogue aircraft. "We'd, in effect, put a flying combat air patrol up over the city; F-16s with an AWACS, which is an airborne radar system, and tanker support so they could stay up a long time. It doesn’t do any good to put up a combat air patrol if you don’t give them instructions to act, if, in fact, they feel it’s appropriate." "Yes. The president made the decision, on my recommendation as well, wholeheartedly concurred in the decision he made, that if the plane would not divert, if they wouldn’t pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out."
The Guardian similarly reported Cheney's efforts that day and of the fate of Flight 93: "The US vice-president, Dick Cheney, was reported to be in the war room in the basement of the White House, from where he was coordinating the administration's response to the terrorist attacks." "In Pennsylvania, United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 en route from Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco, crashed about 80 miles south [east] of Pittsburgh. Its flightpath triggered fresh alerts in the capital before the plane went down."
However, based on the information available to the general public, BuzzFlash thinks Cheney had to consider a disaster much more dangerous than an already-evacuated White House or the President's weekend playground in Maryland. Well within a projected path of Flight 93 were three U.S. nuclear facilities and one which was less than 140 miles from where Flight 93 crashed -- the icon of U.S. nuclear mishaps, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility. The possibility of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities is not something new. Tom Ridge, in his pre-Homeland Security position as Governor of Pennsylvania, reacted to a post September 11 threat (which turned out to be a hoax) by installing a National Guard defensive perimeter around the state's nuclear facilities.
As ABC News reported on October 22, threats against nuclear facilities have been enormously underestimated: "Daniel Hirsch, president of the Los Angeles-based nuclear watchdog group, the Committee to Bridge the Gap, recently told reporters gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. that nuclear reactors are "among the most high-value targets that we have in the United States."
Furthermore, Sorensen's suggestion that Flight 93 was brought down by "friendly fire" is not an entirely new idea. On September 11, witnesses to the crash were calling local media and informing them that U.S. fighter jets had something to do with the plane coming down: "The Federal Aviation Authority is denying reports from Pittsburgh radio and television that U.S. fighters shot down the commercial airliner which crashed 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh. 1610 GMT, 091101."
Additionally, as reported in the Guardian, phone calls made by one of the passengers on Flight 93, moments before it crashed, indicated that there was an explosion on the plane prior to its impact into the Pennsylvania countryside: "At 9:58am, an emergency dispatcher had answered a telephone call from a man who said he was a passenger locked in a bathroom on United Airlines flight 93. 'We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked," he told the dispatcher, while repeatedly insisting that the call was not a hoax. The plane was 'going down', he said. He had heard some sort of explosion and said there was white smoke coming from the aircraft. Then the dispatcher lost him."
We already know that jet fighters had been scrambled immediately following the crash of Flight 175 into the second World Trade Center tower at 9:05am. By the time Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:40am, almost half an hour before Flight 93 hit the ground at 10:05am, U.S. News and the Washington Post reported that fighter jets were already flying over D.C.: "So after the attack on the Pentagon, U.S. F-16 fighter jets circled over Washington, awaiting presidential orders to shoot down any passenger plane that looked like it was seeking a new target. And there were 2,200 planes in the nation's skies -- all carefully monitored by Vice President Cheney and senior White House officials -- right after the attacks began."
"At 9:40, the FAA closed down flight operations across the country, the first time in U.S. history that has happened. No planes could take off; all planes in the air had to land as soon as possible."
"Because of the attacks in New York, the Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all departing flights canceled nationwide, and any planes already in the air were to land at the nearest airport. The Pennsylvania crash came after the order was issued."
Additionally, Flight 93's debris field covered anywhere from three to six miles and, as CNN reported, pieces of the plane were found six to eight miles from the main impact area: "Authorities also said another debris site had been cordoned off six to eight miles away from the original crash debris site."
"A second debris field was around Indian Lake about 3 miles from the crash scene. Some debris was in the lake and some was adjacent to the lake. "More debris from the plane was found in New Baltimore, some 8 miles away from the crash. "State police and the FBI initially said they didn't want to speculate whether the debris was from the crash, or if the plane could have broken up in midair."
A FBI agent at the scene said the debris was "paper and thin nylon" and probably carried to the another location on "wind currents." The NTSB said only that it was "probable" that the secondary debris fields were from Flight 93.
Our own phone calls to the NTSB, concerning the size of debris fields from planes that crashed versus those that broke apart in mid-air resulted in more questions than answers. NTSB Public Affairs representative, Terry Williams, told BuzzFlash that there are no two debris fields that look alike, due to the many variables involved in a plane crash. The Three Mile Island nuclear facility is 137 miles east north east of where Flight 93 hit the ground.
Considering the speed of the smallest 757, Mach 0.80 (or about 590 miles per hour and 9.8 miles a minute), Flight 93 was within 15 minutes of the Three Mile Island nuclear facility.
As City Pages reported on October 17, the prospect of Flight 93 careening into a nuclear facility has far more lasting effects than even the total destruction of the WTC attacks: "An incident of radiological terrorism has the potential to dwarf the attacks in New York and Washington. 'There would be fewer immediate casualties,' Hirsch said, 'But it could result in 10,000 to 100,000 latent cancer deaths, and render an area the size of a state uninhabitable for generations.'" "Two weeks after the attacks, an NRC spokesman admitted [nuclear power] plants were not designed to withstand a strike from a fuel-laden commercial airliner."
If the hijackers were considering nuclear facilities among their target list or, more importantly, the government did indeed take down Flight 93 because it was headed towards Three Mile Island, why is no one talking about it?
As Foreign Policy In Focus, a Washington think tank, said in their October 2001 briefing, a negative view of nuclear facilities on U.S. soil might not be positive for a Bush-Cheney energy plan: "Following the attack, U.S. nuclear power plants and weapons facilities were put on high alert. Yet nuclear technologies are key to the Bush administration’s plans to radically rework the nation’s security and energy policies: allowing for national missile defense by scrapping key elements of nuclear arms control, and crafting an energy strategy that casts a revived nuclear power industry as a major player. Terrorism is not the only danger. It is time to examine all the risks the U.S. is running by assuming that such dangerous technologies can be permanently kept under control, despite the limits inevitably imposed by the fallibility of human beings who design, build, and operate them."
An additional theory of the crash of Flight 93 comes from reports of the phone calls made before it crashed. Passenger Jeremy Glick, as reported by CNN, called his wife and told her "that one of the hijackers 'had a red box he said was a bomb, and one had a knife of some nature.'"
Whether Flight 93 came down as a result of a valiant effort by its passengers -- as many have speculated -- because of a terrorist bomb, or by "friendly fire" from an F-16 with a mission to protect nuclear reactors or Washington air space, we may never know.
At the very least, BuzzFlash thinks the issues surrounding the crash of Flight 93 and the susceptibility of nuclear facilities to attacks have been conveniently swept under the rug of post-September 11th news coverage.
More importantly, BuzzFlash thinks that these questions are being ignored by the administration because of two politically sensitive issues:
Even if Flight 93 wasn't headed toward the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, which it strongly appears may have been the case, we were just lucky this time.